What's a Doc, Doc?


When Bowling for Columbine was up for a Best Documentary Oscar, there was much grumbling in conservative quarters that it shouldn't be eligible—not because it's a crappy movie, but because it isn't "really" a documentary. With Michael Moore's followup, Fahrenheit 9/11, the complaints have grown louder: This isn't a documentary, we're told, because it doesn't try to be objective and because it says things that aren't true.

I was going to wait for next year's Oscars and the inevitable resurgence of that argument before I wrote a piece pointing out that the complaint only makes sense if you ignore the entire history of documentary films. (Look at what was up for the Documentary Oscar 60 years before Columbine won: It's a bunch of military propaganda movies, one of which stars Donald Duck.) I shouldn't have waited: Louis Menand has just written that article for The New Yorker, drawing heavily on Eric Barnouw's excellent book Documentary. Menand points out that the notion of the documentary as an objective record didn't really exist before the cinema vérité and Direct Cinema movements of the '60s—and that the wisest members of those movements understood that, whatever else they might be doing, they weren't making movies without a slant. Menand loves Fahrenheit 9/11, but you don't have to agree with him about that to accept the larger point: If this isn't a documentary, than neither are the acknowledged classics of the genre.

Oh, well. Guess I'll have to write about something else that week